My T-shirt told me to take a chill pill

Smart textiles are starting to hit the market and their fans say they could represent the future of wearable computing .

By: New York Times | Published: June 8, 2014 12:08 am

My heart rate, for instance: 62 beats a minute. And my breathing: 17 breaths a minute.

Unless I drink too many cappuccinos or a deadline looms. Then my T-shirt tells me that my heart rate has jumped to the high 80s, my breathing to 22.

My T-shirt is connected to me and also to the Internet. So along with an iPhone app, it can remind me to take a breath, relax, chill.

The T-shirt I’m wearing was made by OMsignal of Montreal. It has sensors that are supposed to pick up all sorts of data about me — the aforementioned vital signs, plus how many calories I burn and even how stressed I am.

OMsignal is a part of a new breed of young companies focusing on wearable technology. We’re not talking about Google Glass here. These are products made out of biometric materials, or smart textiles. And yes, these products are starting to hit the market. Their fans say they could represent the future of wearable computing.

Lots of people wear fitness bands that can monitor their health. Whether those products deliver all they promise is questionable. But why wear a wristband when you’re already wearing clothes? Weave some sensors into the fabric, and you have one accessory fewer to worry about.

“Smart clothing is easy because it’s the only wearable medium you’ve already been wearing your whole life,” said Stéphane Marceau, co-founder of OMsignal. “In a decade, every piece of apparel you buy will have some sort of biofeedback sensors built in it.”

Many challenges must be overcome first, not the least of which is price. OMsignal shirts start at $80, but they also need a module which powers the shirt and talks to its sensors, that costs $120. But the shirt is machine washable.

Marceau of OMsignal said consumers were getting to a point where they want more information about themselves. “The first cars were completely blind. Then you had a gas gauge. Then a speedometer. Now you can’t imagine a car without these things,” he said. “Smart clothing will do the same thing for the human body.”

Most smart textile products use conductive yarns that can transmit electrical signals. The sensors woven into these materials are either so small you can’t see them or so flexible you don’t notice them. While many of these garments require a battery pack of sorts, some are experimenting with applications in which a smartphone can transmit power and Internet access to sensors and screens that are attached to the clothing.

“This type of fabric, until now, was a laboratory experiment, and no companies were able to develop something that would be a mass-scale product,” said Eliane Fiolet, co-founder of Ubergizmo, the technology website. “Now you have companies that are claiming to figure out a manufacturing process that is viable to introduce these garments at scale.”

These sorts of devices are already emerging. Cityzen Sciences, based in Lyon, France, makes T-shirts that have microsensors embedded in the fabric. These sensors can monitor a person’s temperature, heart rate and location.

Sensilk, based in San Francisco, is making a smart bra with sensors to track a wearer’s fitness. And the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency has funded a number of projects to make wearable computerised clothing for soldiers. Researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology have developed a product called WearArm, which is a computing platform like iOS or Android, but one specifically for smart clothing.

The possibilities don’t end there. A number of universities and research labs have experimented with wearable technology that can help blind people navigate city streets, such as gloves that vibrate when a user needs to make a turn. And then there is Studio Roosegaarde in the Netherlands. It has developed a dress called Intimacy 2.0 with an opaque fabric that becomes transparent when its wearer is aroused — bringing TMI to a whole new level.

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